|Herschel Mullins keeps on ticking along with the clocks and watches in his workspace behind the counter at Mullins’ Jewelry. It’s the same spot he’s occupied for the past 69 years, since March 1, 1938 when Mullins Jewelers opened its doors.
Last Sunday, Mullins celebrated his 91st birthday and Father’s Day with his three sons, nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. He works along side seven of them, totaling three generations, in the jewelry store.
Mullins’ Jewelry has become a Murfreesboro institution, a place where long-time locals take prized possessions for cleaning or repair.
Frances James, 70, has been a Mullins’ customer since she was in high school.
She came with a diamond pendant necklace that slid off her neck in the Demos’ Restaurant parking lot and was run over by a car. She hoped the skillful hands at Mullins could fix it.
“I come here because it’s hometown and they can be trusted. You can’t trust just anyone anymore,” she continued, standing outside Mullins’ door on the public square.
But Mullins’ has built a reputation built on community trust, said Amanda Marvin, Mullins’ granddaughter and salesman.
Customer service is about the only thing that hasn’t changed around the square since Mullins’ opened.
Most of the stores have changed with times, as has the focus of the public square, Mullins recalled.
Mullins’ Jewelry was one of four jewelry shops on the square in the 1930’s. Now, it’s the only one left.
In fact, it’s the oldest retail shop on the square, outlived only by the City Cafe, which opened in 1898.
When Mullins first came to Murfreesboro from the Florence community, he remembered a bustle of activity with policemen on all four sides of the square blowing whistles and directing traffic, cars moving in both directions around the square and Saturdays as the busiest day of the week.
“It was a Saturday business then,” Mullins said. “Murfreesboro was a farming community then and the farmers came to (town) on Saturdays.”
The town square was Saturday’s meeting place, where all the locals would gather to catch up on events and just have a good time. Before the 1950’s, people would gather to watch the preachers preaching and guitar players playing, he recalled.
“Used to be on Saturday, you couldn’t walk on the square,” Mullins said.
All the foot traffic brought in most of his business. He would do more than half Saturday and spend the rest of the week preparing for the next weekend.
But after World War II, business started picking up during the week, a business that has always centered on watches and clocks.
Mullins started his career at Hamilton Watch Making School, where he learned the in-and-out of watch repair.
Hamilton was the first watch company to make an electric watch, instead of the wind-up kind. They didn’t last very long, but it’s what Mullins learned on.
“With battery watches, I didn’t believe they’d ever make it,” Mullins said. “I told people, ‘I don’t ever think they’ll make it.’”
But they did, and so has he. Mullins made the adjustment to battery-powered watches and quartz watches. But antique timepieces still thrill him.
Pointing out his pocket watch collection and the antique clocks lining the walls of his shop, he smiled and showed off the oldest and most complicated like a child on Christmas morning.
“I think it’s like raising the dead when I get one to work,” Mullins said. “I love to do antique watches and clocks.”
When a customer brings in a watch or clock that hasn’t worked in 50 to 75 years, he sets straight to work.
Mullins pointed out a Fashion clock, patented in 1876, that a customer brought in. It’s an extremely complicated mantel clock that keeps the time and the date. The clock even adjusts when it’s a leap year.
All the gears and mechanisms in the back work together accurately keeping up with the motion of the earth, and if one part gets off track, the whole thing dies. And it was dead until Mullins got his hands in it.
“That’s one I raised from the dead,” he proudly said.
Like many of his generation, he took five years off to work for the war effort during World War II.
“I did aircraft instrument repair at Sky Harbor (in Smyrna),” he said. “They hired me right on and I spent my whole time there working on aircraft instruments.”
He worked with 26 other people repairing instruments from wrecked planes. And the pilots had another request.
“The flyboys were coming in and they wanted their watches fixed,” he said. “I worked a lot of nights until 12 o’clock, because I wanted them to have them.”
Even after the war, Mullins continued repairing watches for the Sewart Air Force Base.
“We repaired 100 watches a month. We had three watch makers then and they kept us busy,” Mullins said. But that stopped when the base shut down in 1970.
He also repaired watches for the railroads before computers took over timekeeping.
Mullins has seen many changes in Murfreesboro and the world of watch making in his 91 years. But, he keeps on ticking and appreciates good customers and good watches.
“Now about the cheapest watches they got out will keep as good a time as just about any,” Mullins said. “But there’s still people who want a good watch.”
And, at least in Murfreesboro, those who need help keeping time go to Mullins Jewelers.